the place of icons in our worship at saint ben’s
n this past Trinity Sunday, our community dedicated a reproduction of Andrei Rublev’s trinitarian icon for use in worship. The icon was purchased in memory of Terry Berg, but as is always the case with anything incorporated in worship, it is dedicated to the glory of the triune God, proclaimed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is quite a wonderful icon, filled with light and with an openness that, for Rublev, signaled an invitation to the “reader” to enter in; and in the Orthodox traditions, icons are said to be “written” and “read,” not “painted” and “viewed,” which is a fairly powerful distinction. The figures in the icon are the three angels who visit Sara and Abraham with the message of a promised baby, but they are also meant to be read as figures of the trinity. In the centre is the Son, with his hand held over the chalice on the table. To the left is the Father, and to the right is the Spirit, and if one comes in close to take a look at the various hand gestures, head positions, and eye placement you’ll begin to see that this icon invites you to read it in an ongoing circle. It is, though, an circle with an opening, into which we are really meant to be drawn.
Okay, that is a far too cursory look at this masterful icon, so if you do need to have a guide more schooled in iconography, I’d point you to Rowan Williams’ The Dwelling of Light or to Henri Nouwen’s Behold the Beauty of the Lord, either of which will take you much deeper than I could pretend to go.
Now for Christians who come from a background that hasn’t included icons, we’re often not quite sure what to make of them. To some people might they seem sort of generally “religious,” while to others icons appear to be just old and cut from unfamiliar cloth. Why are we even bothering to draw on the tradition of icons in our community’s worship?
It is interesting that thanks to computer lingo, the word “icon” has been returned to popular vocabulary. We “point and click” on icons, and are carried into the selected program or document. This is actually a very helpful way to begin to understand the Eastern Orthodox idea of the icon. Watch.
The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted. (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church)
Icons are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gates of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God. (Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord)
Just as the “icon” sitting on your computer desktop exists not as a thing in and of itself but merely as a pointer and a path to the thing it represents, so too the icons of faith.
The icons of the Orthodox tradition, such as those we often have at the front of the church at saint benedict’s table, are painted according to very firm conventions and rules. They are flat, almost one-dimensional figures, with highly stylized hands and faces, and could never be mistaken for realistic representations of actual people.
This explains why icons are not easy to ‘see.’ They do not immediately speak to our senses. They do not excite, fascinate, stir our emotions, or stimulate our imagination. At first, they even seem somewhat rigid, lifeless, schematic and dull. They do not reveal themselves to us at first sight. It is only gradually, after a patient, prayerful presence that they start speaking to us. And as they speak, they speak more to our inner than to our outer senses. They speak to the heart that searches for God. (Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord)
At some point, any Christian who has ever read the 10 Commandments has to ask, “but are they idolatrous?” Does the teaching on “graven images” implicate such images? This very question raged in the Easter church for more than a century, finally reaching resolution in the mid-800’s. The argument in favour of the use of icons in worship and private prayer was in fact a theological one: the Incarnation – God becoming human – has made such art not only possible, but in fact essential. The Incarnation redeems matter, and calls us to now use everything at our disposal (including paint and imagination) to proclaim that truth. We are not dualists who believe that God is interested in the redemption of the “pure” soul (and thus rejects the earthy and material), for we proclaim that God loves the earthy and material so much that He not only created it, but actually became a part of it.
Still, there is always this cautionary line in the sand. Listen to what Leontius of Neopolia had to say in the first half of the 600’s:
We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure of Christ who on the Cross was crucified, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them. (Leontius of Neopolia)
And so (in Nouwen’s memorable phrase) we “pray with icons,” and not to them. Then and only then do they have a place in our worship.
As a Twenty-first Century believer formed in the Western Christian tradition, I would want to stretch the term “icon” to include other art, symbols, signs and images. In this sense, an icon is something that points beyond itself to the Divine; a kind of lens that we can look through to see something of the truth of God. Steve and Nanci Bell have a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting “Return of the Prodigal” hanging in their living room, and that has as much to do with its (for them) iconic character as it does with its beauty as art. For some, it might be a plain wooden cross, or even a particular view of the sun setting over a lake. I find that the sight (and smell) of the smoke rising from the incense bowl at our Sunday worship is one of the strongest lenses for expressing the Divine presence. These things point beyond themselves to something far more real and far more true than any image could ever contain.
For all that I want to claim iconic status for a wide array of things, there is something about these Eastern Orthodox icons, isn’t there? Maybe it is because they are strange to our eyes, requiring “patient, prayerful presence,” that they strike us as having a peculiarly holy character. Maybe it is because they have been painted expressly for the “sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible,” or maybe it is simply that they have been prayed with for so many centuries. As we sit in worship, focussing on a painting that thousands of others have prayed with, do we find ourselves inexplicably joined with the prayer life of the communion of saints?
Point and click. The difference, though, is that in the world of the computer, that “click” (barring viruses and malfunctions) will take us where we want to go. God is not so predictable. Point and click, and we might go where we imagine we would go, but we might end up somewhere else entirely… or we might seem to go nowhere at all. This going nowhere might well be the reminder that God will not be domesticated by our will or desire. We might just have to wait.
But even waiting is not so bad; not if you are surrounded by beauty, nourishment, music, community, and prayer.